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Making historical waves in Physics

10 March 2017

Theories proposed over fifty years ago by researchers at King’s were confirmed last year with the discovery of so-called gravitational waves, changing our understanding of the very origin of our universe and solar system.

Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916, but he later became uncertain and made arguments against their existence. This resulted in the field languishing until the mid-1950’s when theoretical physicists, especially members of the King’s relativity group led by Sir Hermann Bondi and Professor Felix Pirani, made significant advances.



Sir Hermann Bondi 

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s Pirani, Bondi, and colleagues, plus students and visitors at King’s, overcame the theoretical obstacles to the existence of gravitational waves in a series of seminal research papers. These demonstrated how general relativity predicted the existence of gravitational waves and the transfer of energy by gravitational radiation. These theoretical advances enabled experimental physicists to start designing detectors to measure if gravitational waves really existed.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, operated by Caltech and MIT in the US, have been searching for gravitational waves since 1994. The LIGO Scientific Collaboration comprises over 1000 scientists from 17 countries, and includes Mairi Sakellariadou, Professor of Theoretical Physics in the Department of Physics at King’s. After a series of upgrades, the LIGO Collaboration announced in February 2016 that they had directly detected gravitational waves for the first time, from two black holes merging – confirming the predictions of the King’s relativity group almost 60 years earlier and Einstein’s predictions from a century ago.

‘It was exciting to be able to confirm the theoretical predictions based on Einstein’s theory, made by Pirani and Bondi, members of King’s in the 50s and 60s. Now that we are able to regularly detect gravitational waves, it opens a new era in gravitational-wave astronomy which will lead to novel discoveries and provide a new window on our cosmic origins’ says Mairi Sakellariadou.


Image copyright: ‘Two Black Holes Merge into One’ CC BY-SA 4.0 Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) project (http://www.black-holes.org) 

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